By Eric Niderost
Lieutenant John Bulkeley knew something was in the wind when General Douglas MacArthur invited him for an informal lunch at his headquarters on Topside, the highest elevation on the island fortress of Corregidor. The date was March 1, 1942, and American and Filipino forces on nearby Bataan were besieged by a powerful Japanese army. Lacking adequate air cover, wracked by tropical disease, MacArthur’s men where short of supplies, ammunition, and hope.
In spite of everything, the self-described “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fought grimly on, upsetting the Japanese timetable of conquest. But it was clear they could not hold forever. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered MacArthur to escape to Australia, and the general decided part of the journey would be made by patrol torpedo (PT) boat.
“It’ll be a Piece of Cake”
After lunch MacArthur took the young Navy lieutenant out to a nearby field that was strewn with rubble and pockmarked with Japanese bomb craters. MacArthur told Bulkeley that he had been ordered to Australia, and once there he hoped to return with an army to relieve the beleaguered garrison. The general wanted Bulkeley’s PT-boats to take him through the Japanese air and sea blockade off Luzon and proceed to Mindanao, some 580 miles south. MacArthur and a small party would then proceed to Australia by air.
Bulkeley could scarcely believe his ears. “But General MacArthur, sir,” the lieutenant replied, “wouldn’t it be safer for you to get to Mindanao by submarine or by air?” MacArthur dismissed the suggestion with a smile. “They won’t be expecting me to make my breakout by PT-boats. Besides, I’ve got great faith in you and your boys. Well, Johnny, do you think you can pull it off?”
The lieutenant’s doubts—if he had any—were melted away by the warmth of MacArthur’s praise. He was young, confident in his own abilities, and possessed of an adventurous spirit. “General,” he replied with alacrity, “it’ll be a piece of cake.”
Lt. John Bulkeley: A Naval Man by Birth
In some respects, Lieutenant John Duncan Bulkeley had prepared for this mission his entire life. He came from a family with a long and distinguished naval background. If anyone had seafaring in his blood, it was Bulkeley. One ancestor, Charles Bulkeley, had served with John Paul Jones during the Revolution, while another forebear had been aboard Admiral Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory at Trafalgar in 1805.
It was natural for Bulkeley to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, but he had the misfortune to graduate in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. Because the Navy was so small at the time, there were not enough slots for new officers. He did not get his formal commission until 1934. Bulkeley soon showed himself to be a clever and resourceful young officer who had a taste for swashbuckling adventure. These qualities would stand him in good stead in the Philippines.
Once, aboard a civilian steamer en route from Norfolk to Washington, D.C., Bulkeley noticed four Japanese passengers who looked suspicious. This was in the mid-30s, and though there were rising tensions the United States and Japan were still at peace. He was informed that one of the quartet was the Japanese ambassador, but Bulkeley was not so sure.
Thinking they might be spies, Bulkeley slipped into the ambassador’s cabin and secured the diplomat’s briefcase. Eventually he took the briefcase, which he imagined was full of secret intelligence, and slipped over the side with his ill-gotten “treasure.” When he proudly reported to naval headquarters, official reaction was less than complimentary. An ashen-faced official took the briefcase, and later Bulkeley was told to keep his mouth shut about the incident.
The Boats That Captured Bulkeley’s Imagination
Ensign Bulkeley was a magnificent anachronism, a swashbuckling hero in the mold of John Paul Jones or Stephen Decatur. In the 1930s modern warfare seemed a matter of steel ships and big guns, not raw courage and individual initiative. Bulkeley needed a place where he could exhibit the very qualities that seemed out of place in an increasingly mechanized world.
Luckily for Bulkeley, he found out about PT-boats. These little craft were something new in naval warfare, and they were much disparaged by Navy brass who thought only in terms of big capital ships. Fast as a speedboat and supremely maneuverable, they were best handled by men of daring and skill. “Whatever in the hell these PTs were,” Bulkeley later admitted, “they captured my imagination. I couldn’t wait to sink my heart and soul into the program.”
Lieutenant (j.g.) Bulkeley was given command of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3, which consisted of PT-31, PT-32, PT-33, PT-34, PT-35, and Bulkeley’s flagship, PT-41. Squadron 3 boasted a compliment of 11 officers and 68 men. In general, each boat had a crew of two officers and 10 to 12 men. The PT-boats were of the latest design, 77-footers that came equipped with four 21-inch torpedo launchers and two pairs of 50-caliber machine guns in power turrets.
By the late summer of 1941, it was clear that Japan and the United States were on a collision course. War was coming, though no one knew when, and there was a sense of urgency in the air. Bulkeley’s command was selected for rapid deployment in the Philippines, even though with six boats he had only half a squadron. The second half was supposed to follow later but never arrived because of Pearl Harbor.
Squadron 3 arrived in Manila on August 28, 1941, where it joined the Asiatic Fleet. Admiral Thomas Hart, commander of the Asiatic Fleet, was not impressed. Until the crisis with Japan heated up in the late 1930s Asia was considered a backwater. Hart had one heavy cruiser, USS Houston, and a ragtag collection of mostly antiquated destroyers, submarines, and other vessels. He had hoped for an aircraft carrier, some cruisers, or a battleship or two.
Oddly enough, Bulkeley found a champion in Douglas MacArthur. The general knew that the Philippines consisted of some 7,000 islands both large and small. PT-boats could easily negotiate the maze of islands and channels, all the while packing a punch with their deadly torpedo tubes. Originally, the new 77-foot long boats were to have been sent to the British under Lend-Lease. MacArthur was largely responsible for Squadron 3 being sent to the Philippines.
War Comes to the Philippines
War came to the islands on December 8, 1941. After receiving news of Pearl Harbor, MacArthur seemed to have been gripped by a kind of inertia. At first he even refused permission for the U.S. Army Air Forces, Far East to bomb Japanese-held Formosa. The situation was made worse by fog-shrouded fields and additional mistakes by MacArthur’s various subordinates.
The Japanese achieved tactical surprise when they attacked Clark Air Field some nine hours after Pearl Harbor. MacArthur’s air force was almost completely wiped out, most of it on the ground. Outclassed and now without air cover, Admiral Hart ordered most of the Asiatic Fleet to leave the Philippines. Bulkeley’s tiny Squadron 3 remained the Navy’s only offensive weapon in the islands.
On December 10, 1941, a swarm of Japanese bombers attacked the Cavite Naval Base, where Bulkeley’s Squadron 3 was headquartered. Once again, the raid was spectacularly successful from the Japanese point of view. Cavite was shattered, with flames and black coils of smoke rising high into the sky. But Bulkeley managed to get his boats out into the open water of Manila Bay before the first bombs fell, so all escaped unscathed.
The Japanese saw the PT-boats, and the temptation to sink a few of these impudent little waterbugs was just too great. Enemy planes dove down like birds of prey, but as soon as they released their bombs, the PT-boats had skidded away. For the next few minutes the PT-boats zigzagged across Manila Bay, engaging in a kind of deadly cat and mouse game with an exasperated enemy.
The PT-boats sliced though the bay, their bows kicking up a white and foamy wake, and rooster tails of water spray kicked up behind the darting craft. Chattering .50- and 30-caliber machine guns peppered the sky with a hail of bullets, and within a short time three Japanese planes had been shot down. The Japanese planes withdrew, having failed to sink a single PT-boat. Squadron 3’s happiness at downing the planes was tempered by the loss of its base.
FDR’s Decision to Save MacArthur
In the meantime, MacArthur had ordered a withdrawal into the Bataan peninsula. The Japanese 14th Army, battle hardened and confident, had landed, and the Filipino-American forces were unable to stop them. The roughly 80,000 defenders of Luzon actually outnumbered the Japanese, but the strength was more apparent than real. The American 31st Infantry and the crack Philippine Scouts formed the backbone of the defense, but together they numbered only about 25,000 or so. The rest were raw Filipino recruits, barely trained and ill equipped.
By March 1942, the Filipino-American forces had been fighting for three months. MacArthur put up a brave, even bombastic, front, assuring all that help was on the way. But in his heart he knew that the Philippines had been written off. The defeat of Hitler seemed more compelling, and the United States adopted a “Europe first” policy. But in a time of gloom, when the Japanese were winning victory after victory and the Allies were hard pressed on battlefields throughout the globe, MacArthur’s defiance gave Americans a reason to hope.
President Roosevelt was faced with a dilemma. Even before the war, MacArthur had been one of his most famous and flamboyant generals. Roosevelt disliked MacArthur and had considered him a potential political rival in peacetime. The president had little regard for MacArthur the man, but MacArthur the general had become a hero in the eyes of an adoring American public. The Japanese were almost salivating in anticipation of his capture. Some propaganda even had MacArthur being hanged in Tokyo as a “war criminal.”
This simply could not be allowed to happen. MacArthur, the symbol of the American war effort, could not fall into Japanese hands. Then, too, Australia was in imminent danger of Japanese invasion, or so it seemed at the time. The great British fortress of Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, with thousands of Australian soldiers becoming POWS, and on February 19 Darwin, Australia, had suffered a heavy air raid.
MacArthur had spent years in Asia and was considered something of an authority on the Oriental mind. His loss would be a bitter blow. To stabilize a seemingly deteriorating situation in the Southwest Pacific, reassure worried allies, and to save an American “hero,” Roosevelt decided to order MacArthur to escape to Australia.
MacArthur’s ‘Illogical’ Choice: Escape by PT-Boat
When the order reached him, the general’s first reaction was one of outrage. It was as if leaving would show cowardice in the face of the enemy. He thundered and gestured to his staff, dramatically waving a paper that supposedly had his signature of resignation on it. MacArthur said he would resign his command and fight on as a volunteer on Bataan.
MacArthur was a genuinely brave man but so prone to theatrics it is hard to tell if he was putting on a show or sincere in his threats. At last he calmed down and decided the first leg of his journey would be by PT-boat. This flew in the face of all logic. In fact, Admiral Hart and other officials had already successfully escaped by submarine. An earlier proposal had MacArthur and his party leaving by the submarine Permit for the trip to Mindanao. From there, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers would fly him to Australia.
But MacArthur was insistent. He would go by PT-boat or not at all. He had utter confidence in Lieutenant Bulkeley. During the last three months MacArthur had had Bulkeley report to him almost every day. He got to know the young lieutenant, who had a swashbuckling, flamboyant flair so much like his own. In spite of the age difference and the fact that they were from rival branches of the military, they were in some respects kindred spirits. MacArthur developed an affection for the younger man, calling him that “bold buckaroo with the cold green eyes.”
The idea of being trapped underwater in a steel coffin of a submarine while enduring a depth charge attack was not to MacArthur’s liking. If he had to go, he wanted to go down fighting, even if the only weapon at hand was a .45-caliber pistol. Then, too, the idea of breaking through the supposedly all but impenetrable Japanese blockade had enormous appeal. It was a blow to Japanese “face.”
Bulkeley’s Challenging Task
By early March, Bulkeley’s boats were in pretty bad shape. They had participated in a number of raids against the Japanese with varying degrees of success. But there were few if any spare parts, and much had been lost during the destruction of the squadron’s Cavite base on December 10. The submarine tender Canopus improvised as best it could, making spare parts and repairing those that were wearing out.
Unfortunately, Japanese bombing raids made it all but impossible to work during the day, which meant there was sometimes a backlog of repair orders. If that was not bad enough, the squadron’s precious fuel supply had been compromised, and Bulkeley strongly suspected sabotage. The gasoline was filled with large quantities of soluble wax, which clogged gas strainers and carburetor jets.
Some Filipino watchmen were searched, and blocks of paraffin were found in some kegs they had brought aboard. Bulkeley ordered their arrest as saboteurs. “I ought to shoot the bastards myself,” Bulkeley raged, but the damage was done. It was soon found that most of the wax could be strained out by filtering the gas through an old army hat. Still, the engines had to be checked regularly, and there was no guarantee they would continue to run normally from day to day.
There seemed to be an increased Japanese naval presence in the area. Allied radio broadcasts let the cat out of the bag by announcing repeatedly that General MacArthur was going to take command in Australia. The Japanese were eager to capture MacArthur, and if he was taken “running away” the propaganda coup would be that much greater.
Four PT-boats would be used in the breakout operation. They would all leave from different locations so as not to arouse the suspicion of any spies that might be lurking around. The four boats were supposed to rendezvous at 8 pm on the evening of March 11, 1942, off the turning buoy outside the minefields at the entrance to Manila Bay.
Bulkeley’s own 41 boat would carry General MacArthur, Mrs. Jean MacArthur, their four-year-old son Arthur, and his Chinese nurse, Ah Cheu. General Richard Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, would also be aboard, as well as Captain Herbert Ray, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Huff, and Major Charles H. Morhouse, the latter coming along as MacArthur’s personal physician.
Lieutenant Robert Kelly’s PT-34 would have Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, commander of the 16th Naval District, as a passenger, as well as General Richard Marshall, deputy chief of staff, Colonel Charles Stivers, and Captain Joseph Pickering. PT-35 and PT-32 each held a complement of staff officers. The journey was dangerous but well planned under the circumstances. If the boats were spotted, evasive action was to be used. If attacked, PT-41 would make a run for it while the others attempted a delaying action.
“By Guess and by God”
The little convoy continued though the moonless night, just making out the dim silhouette of Apo Island before sweeping around Cabra Island and making a sharp left into the Mindoro Strait. After that, the boats proceeded southeast into the Sulu Sea. At first the sea was moderate, at least for Navy men, but their landlubber passengers started to feel queasy almost at once. The real misery began when the wind whipped up a frothy sea that included 15- to 20-foot swells. Many began to feel the gut-clenching pangs of nausea, including General MacArthur himself.
Though most of the passengers felt seasick, General MacArthur was in some respects the most seriously ill. Drenched and lashed by waves that crashed over the bow, stung by spray that drove against his skin like “pellets of birdshot,” MacArthur soon emptied the contents of his stomach into the raging Sulu Sea. Thereafter, all he could do was to go below and collapse wretchedly on a mattress, his face hollow-eyed and chalky white with continued dry retching.
MacArthur’s torment was mental as well as physical. He could not help feeling that he had abandoned his post in time of war, leaving his men to face possible death and captivity. Huddled in PT-41’s pitch-black interior, buffeted by the sea and his own raw emotions, Douglas MacArthur experienced what was probably, literally and figuratively, the darkest moment of his life.
By around 3 am it was clear the four boats had lost contact with one another. The next rendezvous point was supposed to be Tagauayan Island. Lieutenant Kelly’s 34 boat arrived first, navigating “by guess and by God.” Kelly sent two men ashore, who scrambled up the island’s 500-foot hill to act as lookouts for both enemy aircraft and the other three PT boats.
Meanwhile, Bulkeley was having his own troubles. He maneuvered PT-41 closer to shore in an effort to seek calmer waters. It was a calculated risk because there were uncharted reefs in the area, ready to gouge a hole into the hull of any unwary vessel. Yet danger lurked in another quarter, and when Bulkeley found out about it his rage knew no bounds.
Rendezvous at Tagauayan
PT-32 was under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) Vincent Schumacher, and just before dawn he spotted a “strange, unidentified craft” to his rear. He cleared for action and seriously considered launching his torpedoes and opening up with his .50-caliber machine guns. At the last minute Schumacher decided to make a run for it instead, and 20 spare drums of gasoline were tossed over the side to make the boat lighter.
The sun’s light was growing stronger, and another look through his binoculars told Schumacher the embarrassing truth. The “unknown vessel” was PT-41. When the two boats met, Bulkeley dressed the young lieutenant down in no uncertain terms. If PT-32 had opened fire, all passengers and crew aboard PT-41 might have been killed.
After this near disaster, Bulkeley led the two boats to Tagauayan, where they rejoined Kelly and PT-34. There was no time to rest. Decisions had to be made. In the back of Buckley’s mind there was one worry. Where was PT-35? In the meantime, MacArthur called for an impromptu conference. The submarine Permit was scheduled to arrive at the island the next day. Should they transfer to the sub or continue the final leg of the trip by PT-boat?
Admiral Rockwell felt that they should continue with the PT-boats. There was always the possibility that Permit would not show up as planned. Bulkeley was perfectly willing to proceed but warned his passengers that the proposed night journey would be rough since they would be going across the open sea. MacArthur decided that they would continue to travel by PT-boat but felt they should start at 6 pm when it was still light.
In the end Schumacher and PT-32 would temporarily stay behind at Tagauayan, his mission to contact Permit and relay the message that the 41 and 34 boats were proceeding to Mindanao. Once he delivered the message, he would go to Panay, around 125 away, for repairs and fuel before continuing on to Cagayan, Mindanao. Schumacher’s passengers were divided between the departing 34 and 41 boats.
A Rough Journey For Douglas MacArthur
Unfortunately, Bulkeley’s prediction proved correct. The Sulu Sea was rougher than they had experienced on the first leg of the journey. Once again, MacArthur lay on a mattress, violently seasick, and most of his staff was in the same condition. But the sea was not the only enemy to confront. A Japanese cruiser was seen on the far horizon to the south. If it continued in that direction, it would be on an intercept course with MacArthur’s tiny flotilla.
Thinking quickly, Bulkeley ordered the PT-boats to turn west into the setting sun at maximum speed. Somehow they escaped detection. But once again the weather turned bad with rough seas and rain squalls. Bulkeley and his crews had never been in these waters, and for the most part navigation was by dead reckoning. They managed to reach the southern tip of Negros Island, then groped their way to Silino Island, which was sighted at 2 am.
Suddenly, Japanese searchlights lit the sky, probing fingers of light that explored the darkness. There were Japanese shore batteries in the area, and the engines of the PT-boats had been heard. Luckily, the Japanese had apparently mistaken the sounds as airplane engines, not surface craft. But their escape from Japanese artillery seemed to be the only small fragment of luck in what proved to be a miserable night.
Monstrous waves assaulted the tiny PT-boats, threatening to send them to the bottom, and there was a very real danger that someone might be swept overboard. Bulkeley and his officers and men were all feeling the strain since they had not slept for two days. But once again, it was MacArthur who seemed the worst off. Mental anguish over leaving, constant seasickness, and numbing, bone-weary fatigue had left the general in a semiparalyzed, at times almost catatonic, state.
The general could not sleep, so he talked to one of his aides, Lt. Col. Huff. Huff later recalled the incident with a mixture of incredulity and concern. MacArthur’s “great general” façade, the imperious face he usually displayed, slipped off to reveal the vulnerable human being beneath. It was almost surreal because MacArthur poured out his heart to the startled aide.
He talked about how he had tried for years to persuade Congress to provide adequate money for the defense of the Philippines, but in the main these pleas had fallen on deaf years. MacArthur, his voice choking with emotion, recalled how hard it was to leave Corregidor. The storm-tossed conversation was a kind of catharsis for the general, purging him of the regrets and anxieties he had harbored for such a long time.
Then, suddenly, the moment was over; the granite façade was back in place, and MacArthur was his usual curt, imperious self. The general promised he would make Huff a full colonel, then wished him a good night.
“You’ve Taken Me Out of the Jaws of Death”
Dawn came, and even though there was a risk in traveling by daylight, everyone’s spirits revived. The seas were also calmer, and the wind had died down. It was not long before they sighted the peninsula just west of Cagayan. On the big island of Mindanao, this was their final Philippine destination. Once on Mindanao, MacArthur and his party would be flown out by B-17 bomber to Australia.
It was the morning of March 13, 1942. There was still a chance that Cagayan was occupied by the Japanese, and all were relieved to see that was not the case. When PT-41 nosed up to the dock, MacArthur stood at the prow, almost as if posing for history. Whatever the general’s faults, ingratitude was not one of them. Before he departed for the airfield, there was still a task to be done.
MacArthur approached Bulkeley and told him that he would award every officer and man of his unit the Silver Star for gallantry. Both men must have been quite a sight. MacArthur’s eyes were red-rimmed, and his face was speckled with the stubble of an unshaved beard. His uniform, usually immaculate, was rumpled and stained. Bulkeley, too, had a growth of beard, and his hair was longer than regulation length.
“You’ve taken me out of the jaws of death,” MacArthur told Bulkeley, “and I won’t forget it.” And to his credit, the general never did.
A 1,500-Mile Flight From Mindanao
The next step for MacArthur’s party was Del Monte airfield, located on a plantation owned by the familiar pineapple company. The general was outraged when he finally arrived at the airfield. Instead of the three B-17s he had expected, there was only one battered bomber. There were three days of anxious waiting while MacArthur demanded better transport.
Originally, four B-17s had departed Australia, but two were forced back by engine trouble and a third ran into a rain storm and crash landed into the sea. Two crewmen had been killed, but after four hours in the water the surviving crew managed to swim ashore in the Philippines. The fourth Flying Fortress managed to reach Del Monte, though with damaged turbo superchargers and bad brakes.
General MacArthur’s outrage knew no bounds. According to some stories, he was not too happy with the battered plane’s pilot either. Lieutenant Harl Pease, 24, was an officer who looked like he was barely out of high school, though his looks were deceiving.
MacArthur heated up the radio waves with demands for new and better airplanes. Maj. Gen. George Brett, commander of the USAAF in Australia, eventually sent two B-17E Flying Fortresses to pick up the general and his entourage. One, No. 41-2447, was flown by Lieutenant Frank Bostrom, and the other, No. 41-2429, was piloted by Captain William Lewis, Jr. Each bomber was loaded with supplies for the troops in the Philippines, including quinine and other badly needed items.
It was clear the 1,500-mile flight fromMindanao to Australia was not going to be a “milk run.” At one point their path took them between two major Japanese airbases. Nevertheless, the two bombers took off and arrived safely at Del Monte around 10 pm on March 16. There were supposed to be three bombers, but one did not leave Australia because of a fuel leak.
It was decided that two B-17s were adequate for the task, provided MacArthur’s party would leave behind all baggage. This was done, but the two aircraft were cramped with both passengers and flight crew.
Arriving in Australia
It was just after midnight on March 17, 1942, when the two overburdened bombers struggled to get into the air. Engines sputtering and straining, the B-17s just managed to get airborne. Though MacArthur’s party must have been glad to leave the Philippines after so much danger, joy soon turned to nausea. Most were airsick the entire 10-hour flight to the land Down Under.
When the planes approached Darwin, Australia, they were informed by radio that their designated airfield was under attack by the Japanese. MacArthur’s two bombers were diverted to Bachelor Field, some 45 miles south of Darwin. The general remarked to Sutherland, “It was close, but that’s the way it is in war. You win or lose, live or die—and the difference is just an eyelash.”
Jean MacArthur and four-year-old Arthur were exhausted, and it was necessary to give the boy intravenous fluids. The general’s party boarded two Australian National Airways DC-3s for the trip to Alice Springs, where the nearest rail line was located. At the time Alice Springs was rough and primitive, more like a 19th-century Tombstone than a community located in the British realm.
MacArthur’s staff flew ahead to Adelaide, but since Jean refused to board a plane again the general traveled on a special train. The train was a steam engine pulling three wooden cars, and it took 70 hours to cross the 1,028 miles of narrow-gauge track. MacArthur was becoming disillusioned because he realized he had been told gross exaggerations if not outright lies.
Earlier, Washington had assured him that there was a massive buildup of American men, equipment, and matériel in Australia. There was a buildup, but nowhere near what he had been led to expect. He was not going to immediately return to the Philippines with an army at his back, and the truth hurt. Nevertheless, he put on a brave face. When he reached Terowie Railway Station on March 20, he gave an impromptu speech stressing the fact that he had come out of the Philippines, but “I shall return.”
The PT-Boat Escape: A Foolhardy Decision
In retrospect, Roosevelt’s decision to take General MacArthur out of the Japanese trap was a wise one. MacArthur was knowledgeable about the Far East, but above all he was a good and occasionally brilliant general who was the living embodiment of the military to the American people. His death or capture would have been a psychological blow to the Allied cause, a cause already reeling from the shock of many defeats.
By the same token, MacArthur’s insistence on PT-boats was foolhardy and almost reckless in the extreme. Going by PT-boat exposed the general, his family, and all his companions to unnecessary risk. The weather was bad, and they managed to avoid detection from Japanese shore batteries, surface ships, and aircraft by sheer luck. Above all the boats were worn out, dangerously in need of repair and overhaul.
If MacArthur had been lost at sea, killed, or captured, his breakout would have been a mere footnote of history, another entry in the growing list of Allied failures early in the war. But he did make it to Australia, thus providing one of the most exciting episodes of World War II.